Project Showcase: University of West Georgia’s Along The Ridge
23 July 2020 – Maya Brooks
When I arrived at the University of West Georgia (UWG) as a graduate research assistant in Spring 2019, I learned that I would be working on a project called Along the Ridge, which connects descendants of enslaved people with the history of their ancestors. I was honored to be working on the project. Growing up, I had friends who knew their families’ history going back generations. I was not one of those people. For this reason, I was enthused to help descendants of slavery learn more about their family history.
It is just as important that African Americans in this country know their heritage as it is for any other ethnic group. Thus, this project is about not only how a university works with a descendant community but also how universities can aid African American communities in reconciling with their own history.
The UWG campus occupies the site of a plantation established by Thomas Bonner in 1844. In 1906 the state of Georgia established the 4th District Agricultural and Mechanical School (now UWG) on the former plantation. The original school was built on the site of former housing for enslaved workers and a cemetery that, according to oral tradition, had served enslaved people during the Bonners’ occupancy. This project was community-based from the start. In September 2018, a local resident and descendant of Abraham Bonner, who had been enslaved on the plantation, came forth during a community forum to suggest that the ground near Melson Hall, a former dormitory, could be the cemetery’s location. This intervention started UWG on a journey to understand the history of enslavement on the property where the university now stands.
After confirming the location with an archaeological survey of the area, our faculty and students in UWG’s Center for Public History began collaborating across campus to document the history of the Bonner family and the legacy of enslavement on the university’s campus. We named the project Along the Ridge, drawing from Abraham Bonner’s description of the plantation: “Along the ridge from the rear of the kitchen… we had our own burying ground.”
Primary-source research is one of the main components of Along the Ridge. We began with the federal census, trying to identify the families who lived in the area and to locate their descendants. We have also examined slave schedules, deed books, and agricultural records. Through this research we have documented Abraham Bonner and his family. Another aspect of the project is oral histories conducted with descendants of those enslaved on the property. Oral histories have given us more names to research, as well as access to family documents and photographs.
All of this research allowed us to build relationships with family members of formerly enslaved people. For example, Valarie Bonner Barnes, who organizes an annual Bonner Family Reunion, suggested our team attend her family reunion in September 2019. They visited the Bonner House and cemetery (as pictured above) as well. Thus far, we have shared our research findings first with the descendant family and then with the larger UWG community. This fall, we plan to conduct genealogical research to find more descendants, as well as conduct more oral histories. Our plans to share our research with the public include the development of a tour about the history of African Americans on campus, exploring the possible use of the Bonner House as an interpretative center, and planning the development of a memorial on the site of the cemetery. While the research for this project is ongoing, we hope that it will ultimately lead to a better understanding of the history and legacy of slavery on the UWG campus.
For me, working on this project and seeing the descendants learn more information about their family has been incredibly rewarding. It has inspired me to learn more about my own family. I know that we have lived in Mississippi and Louisiana—but not much else. For my dad’s family I plan on interviewing my grandmother so I can get her perspective on Mississippi. On my mother’s side I can talk to any of her five siblings, all of whom are over age 60. I also plan to look at Ancestry records on my family as well. This offers an opportunity for my entire family to reconcile with our history.
~Maya Brooks is a graduate student in public history at the University of West Georgia. She also serves as a Graduate Research Assistant in the Center for Public History on campus. She is currently working on her thesis, which will be about the 1996 Centennial Olympic Games in Atlanta.